To all genuine followers of Buddhism, and everyone else who believes in equality, the US election was a punch in the gut. A man who ran on a campaign of racism, taking American jobs away from immigrants and foreign nationals, a man who took pride in not paying his share of taxes and swore to implement a regressive tax policy, cutting taxes for the rich, putting the burden of funding government on the poor, a man who was caught on tape talking about raping women, became the leader of the free world. In the first 24 hours following the election results alone, 8 American transexual youth committed suicide. People console themselves saying he’s not going to be as bad as he seems, but, within days of his election Trump appointed a white nationalist as his chief of staff. Since the election, in many states across the United States, Nazi swastikas were graffitied on walls, muslim, black, Asian, brown and LGBTQ citizens were harassed, and assaulted. In cities big and small all around the world, from New York to London to Tokyo, white supremacists have sprung up, racist hate crime reports have risen. On one hand this is going to be a painful four years for Americans and political minorities around the world. On the other hand, however, this may be the only way for those blinded by privilege and believe that racism, and misogyny don’t exist in today’s world, to get a front row seat to watch these issues unveil themselves on the centre stage of global politics.
The mind-numbing question remains: how is it that we saw quite a few Sri Lankans supporting Trump? It’s easy to come to the usual conclusions: these are people let down by our antiquated education system, people with little to no exposure to progressive politics, perhaps out of ignorance they found Trump to be entertaining. There’s the obvious factor of sexism; nothing scares chauvinist men, and women raised to be subservient to men more than living in a world in which the most powerful nations are run by women. And then there’s the extremely flawless, rational theory of our fellow Sinhala aunties and uncles: “Hillary took money from those with ties to the LTTE,” so even if Hitler were to rise from the dead and run against her, so be it, they’d still want her to lose. There is also the rational counterargument that we Sri Lankans lost our right to point our fingers to those supporting terrorism the moment we let our state kill thousands of our own civilians, celebrated it, and live in denial that it ever happened. But of course, no ordinary Sri Lankan would have the backbone to open that can of worms. (Appachchi taught us well.) For most Sri Lankans it was either one or all of those factors above that convinced them to support Trump. On a surface level, the explanations above make sense; it seems that Sri Lankan Trump supporters didn’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp the fact that we too are brown and fall under the same category of people Trump and his campaign claimed to be unworthy of equal rights as white men. As tragic as that is, it leads us to my next point. I do not believe that Sri Lankans supporting Trump is a phenomenon that merely resembles the level of ignorance in our society and how much more we need to reform our education system to educate our children about our history of colonial oppression, colourism and the baggage it has left us with. I believe this phenomenon resembles a much a deeper issue pertaining to a slave mindset nourished in Sri Lankans by decades of political, religious and chauvinist propaganda that convinced us that bigotry is a form of patriotism, and made us victim to authoritarian leaders who claimed to be socialists, time and time again.
“Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation” I hear this on the news everyday. It’s a tagline in our political speeches. Is Sri Lanka really a Buddhist nation? Somedays, I truly wish it was.
Is Sri Lanka really home to a population of people that embody true buddhist values and logic? Or are we a nation constitutionally bound to protect a doctrine that is easily manipulated and misinterpreted by clergy and others with political agendas? The answer to both questions above is “no,” but, we are incredibly closer to the latter than the first.
Buddhism, to me, is a very personal thing. It is a spiritual way of life that helps us through difficult times. It guides us when making important decisions and questions our conscience when we are faced with tough choices. In this world full of hate and inexplicable injustice nothing can calm your soul than the buddhist philosophy of compassion. Buddhism teaches us integrity: to be a thathaavaadhi, yathaakari, yathaavaadhi thathakaari individual,(one who says what one does and does what one says) to stay above the fray like a lotus in a pond, to surround ourselves with the right mentors and friends, ( asewanaacha baalanam, pandithanancha sevana,) to keep up with the times and improve our capacity of the Dhamma: Kalena Dhamma Sakachcha/Savannahcha (some tend to interpret this as merely listening to/ discussing the dhamma at the appropriate time, but I’d take it a step further to say the Buddha was intelligent enough to believe the world was bound to evolve and Buddhism should too, and that this clause meant that we should discuss the dhamma as it related to the respective time). In a country such as ours in which mental health is very much reliant upon home remedies, with a culture in which western medicine, psychiatry and personal therapy are almost unheard of when dealing with times of grave loss, trauma and other common causes of mental instability, religion is what most people resort to, for solace and strength. If you think about it, the true role of religion/ faith in holding people together, internally and externally, the grip it possesses in helping people in their most difficult times, and guiding them to aspire to be better versions of themselves in good times, is truly powerful.
In a nation that survived a 30 year war and two brutal insurgencies, we are a traumatized population. Religion played a huge role in helping our population grieve, endure and move on. The temples, churches, kovils and mosques often provided solace to mothers, fathers, and widows who lost their loved ones at war. During the black July, as some Sri Lankan families saw their homes being burnt down by their fellow citizens, they still believed that God-willing, life could get better, that they would find safety sooner or later if not in their motherland, in a land far away. On some of the footage in No Fire Zone you can see mothers, fathers and children praying to God, as shells poured over from the sky. In 2004 as the tsunami hit us hard, we resorted to places of worship, for strength; in times of inexplicable pain and violence, to many, religion was the only thing that made sense. Millions take their newborn children to the place of faith they feel connected to, to pass on the power and blessings of their faiths to their children. Religion is an intergenerational companion. Whether you believe in a religious faith or not, it is undeniable that the effect religions have on many people’s lives is truly remarkable. I’m not saying that religion is the only element in society that can have this effect on people, but in Sri Lankan society, this energy of faith is noticeably a powerful one. Buddhism, as the religion practiced by a larger group of the population, is no different. The power of millions of people’s faith in compassion, kindness, empathy and equanimity should amount to something: something worth saving.
For the longest time, however, Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been becoming increasingly politicized, taking away its power as a personal faith to one that is authoritarian, bigoted, and sometimes violent. Why is that?
1. For many decades the Buddhism curricula taught in Sri Lankan schools discriminate within the Triple Gem: we teach our children about the Buddha, and the Sangha but barely touch on the Dhamma.
Think about it: we learn more about Prince Sidhuhath’s life, his royalty, his journey to enlightenment, the royal stories of Buddha’s time: how the kings lived by the rules of the sangha, and the importance of royal/state patronage for the Sangha than we do about the actual Dhamma (which is the core of the philosophy of Buddhism). We also come across recurring lessons on the acceptance of social hierarchy: how those who had done good deeds in their previous lives were born to higher classes/castes and those who had sinned were born to lower classes/castes. How craftily they sew in such divisive messages into a beautiful philosophy of equality is astonishing.
This fact is not a coincidence. This is a carefully orchestrated pedagogy of a vulnerable and oppressed community, to manipulate their views on the world, politics and themselves; it has normalized classism, state patronage of bigotry, and made it impossible for Sri Lanka to maintain the required democratic distance between the temple and the state.
We are not alone; the only other nation in the world to follow the version of Theravada Buddhism closest to ours, Thailand, has done the exact same. They have used Buddhism as a tool to create a nation claiming to be a democracy with a population that obeys its monarchy, normalizes and accepts social hierarchies.
2. Donald Trump, Adolph Hitler, Ferdinand Marcos, and other leaders who came to power through racist ideologies tapped into an inner pride in majoritarian societies that gave them a sense of privileged security. They convinced their followers that bigotry was a form of patriotism. In Sri Lanka, a large group of nationwide Buddhist monks are doing the same.
There used to be a time when the temple was the cornerstone of our society. When a roof of a muslim home blew away in the rain, that family could find a home in the temple, all villagers regardless of their race and religion would come together and rebuild that home. We stuck to our original principles of: compassion, kindness and equanimity. But today that Buddhism no longer exists. Overtime, politician after politician, textbook after textbook have run the propaganda that sometimes blatantly stated and often subtly dog-whistled rhetoric that made the Sinhalese believe that they were the more superior Sri Lankans. When Trump did the exact same with the white Americans, it helped so many Sri Lankans validate these thoughts of racial-purity that had grown in them.
“You Tamil Dog, I Will Kill You” earlier this week a Buddhist monk told a Grama Sevaka in Batticaloa. In the video footage of it, he seemed genuinely insecure, he claimed that the Sinhalese put up with the LTTE shooting at them, but now the Tamils are going to courts against the Sinhalese. When a population lives in privilege for so long and that privilege is normalized, another community’s demand for equal rights as them becomes a threat to their privilege and is misunderstood as oppression.
Sinhalese privilege is a sense of security that no matter what; whether they are uneducated, whether they go broke or homeless, they will always be Sinhalese, they will stand above “the others.” A false sense of security that politicians have used time and time again to manipulate these vulnerable people. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) movement claims that they believe Islam is a hateful religion that promotes violence, so in the name of protecting Buddhism from this violent religion, they took to the streets and set Muslim homes in Aluthgama on fire. Last week BBS leader Gnanasara warned to create a bloodbath in Maligawatta.
When the sinhalese describe Tamils’ and Muslims’ equal rights demands as oppression, they mean that it is a threat to that privileged security the majority feels. When men describe feminism (women’s right to equal opportunities and respect) as oppression against men they are describing that it is a threat to male privilege.
3. Racism is not the only kind of bigotry promoted by the current Sri Lankan interpretation of Theravada Buddhism: it fosters sexism through structural and cultural discrimination.
Although Buddhism is built on the concept of equality and compassion, the Theravada Buddhist traditions orchestrated in Sri Lanka enforce patriarchal values. Although it was Sanghamitta Therani who arrived in Anuradhapura with a Bo sapling of the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi, over the years patriarchal traditions have been established to ensure that women are not allowed to step on the Uda maluwa of sacred bo trees (although men are allowed to.)
When Ananda thera asked Buddha if there was any reason women could not attain enlightenment and enter Nirvana just as men can, Buddha admitted there was no reason a woman couldn’t be enlightened. “Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship,” he said. The Buddhist philosophy in its core never identifies gender roles, however, later interpretations of Buddhism as an organized religion rather than a philosophy, has enforced gender roles through the medium kumara and kumari bambasara such as women’s responsibility to maintain “purity.”
The election commitee for appointing the Diyawadana Nilame is composed of Mahanayakas and divisional secretaries of former Kandyan kingdom areas, however it is said that “female and non-Buddhist divisional secretaries have no voting rights.” In the context of appointing key Buddhist figures, our current buddhist administration puts Buddhist women in the same category as non-Buddhists.
4. Racial Segregation of schools is still a thing in Sri Lanka. And students who go to segregated majoritarian schools often have an awfully misinterpreted understanding of what diversity and inclusion means; somewhat similar to Trump’s rhetoric of diversity.
Unfortunately there is yet to be a desegregation movement in Sri Lanka’s education system. America’s school desegregation movement in the 1960’s to large extent ended racial segregation and majoritarian schools ie. “white’s only” and “whites only schools with one digit percentage for minorities.” There is a large portion of schools in Sri Lanka that are structurally administered to admit a majority of Sinhala students with a one digit percentage of minority students. Racial segregation of schools takes away students’ opportunities for social cohesion, it normalizes discrimination and enforces racial/religious supremacy as a component of one’s identity, the same way gender segregation of schools takes away students’ opportunity to learn mutual respect and enforces the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and gender roles. There are strict religiously entrenched laws that protect the segregation and the existence of majoritarian schools in Sri Lanka.
Where do we go from here?
Trump ran on a campaign of bringing jobs back to America. The United States is the single largest export destination for Sri Lankan products with over 22% of its exports. If he keeps his word, (which he most likely will because he’ll want to run for a second term) think about all the Sri Lankan workers that will lose jobs, endure pay cuts and lose benefits. Take the apparel industry in Sri Lanka for instance, which constitutes 52% of our industrial exports market and provides direct employment opportunities to over 300,000 and indirect employment to 600,000 Sri Lankans. The American economy is crashing, and as described by leading economists in the world from Krugman to Stiglitz, the economic repercussions of this on both America and the world are infinite.This transition could hit us hard. Very, very hard.
People spoiled under a progressive wonder that was the Obama administration, who had the privilege of blindly claiming that racism and sexism doesn’t exist in today’s world, will be forced to change their mind. But it is also likely that many will spend the next four years in blissful ignorance, blaming their problems on women and minorities trying to oppress them.
If we do not rethink our education of buddhism, clean it where it has been contaminated and misinterpreted, Buddhism will have the fate of Islam in the middle east; misinterpreted, misunderstood, divided and violent. We may continue to produce hateful Buddhist extremists who rightfully misunderstand equality for oppression. If we do not desegregate our schools both in terms of race and gender we may continue to produce Sri Lankans who are blissfully ignorant to the concepts of inclusivity and diversity.
Now, more than ever, we need to rethink our education system and the values we promote through it.
*Thisuri Wanniarachchi, 23, is the author of novels The Terrorist’s Daughter and Colombo Streets. She is Sri Lanka’s youngest State Literary Award winner and the world’s youngest national nominee to the prestigious Iowa International Writers’ Program. She is currently an undergraduate student and full scholar of Bennington College studying Political Economy and Education Reform.